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24 April 2008

As a departure from MC’s obsession with the way in which Spaniards walk (it is pretty insane, however we’ve received new evidence that it’s a Mediterranean issue and not a Spanish issue), we have a new topic to discuss: what the rest of the world thinks of Americans!

(I can hear the collective groan all the way over here)

I’ve had a couple interesting experiences in the past few weeks that have shed some light on the rest of the world’s opinions about the US and have actually made me feel a little bit better about international relations.

First of all, I, apparently, do not look American. Last Thursday, a Swiss girl from our school came up to me in a bar and asked me a question in German (after which I stared blankly at her for about a minute and a half thinking ‘oh, please, please, please don’t let my Spanish be that bad!’), and once we got the languages figured out MC asked her why she automatically spoke German to me. She replied that she wasn’t sure where I was from but that I don’t give off an American vibe, and she thought I might be German. So apparently I’m either Dutch or German depending on whether I’m sitting or standing. (I was standing when the Dutch tourists approached me and sitting when the Swiss girl approached). We were talking to her for a while when she said, completely unprompted, that she thought of America as a country of extremes. We have the fattest people in the world and yet so many people with anorexia or bulimia; we have such huge differences in political beliefs among citizens; so much of what the rest of the world sees comes from Hollywood so it’s rife with all kinds of extremism; and even our landscapes are extreme in the sense that our country is huge, our climate is varied and we have such extreme topography from the Grand Canyon to the Rocky Mountains to Death Valley all the way to Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp. She then said that it was very strange to meet someone from the US who is just normal and like any average person from Switzerland or France or wherever. I wasn’t quite sure how to take that, but I think it’s a good thing. Mom? Dad? I’m officially average! And I’m out spreading my American averageness to the rest of the world!

A few days later in class, my teacher wrote “America,” “Holland,” “Portugal,” and “Russia” across the top of the board. (My class consists of, at the moment, girls from Russia, Holland, and Portugal, a boy from Georgia – that’s Republic of, not the US state – and a guy from England. That day however, it was only us girls in class). He then turned and said to me (in Spanish, of course), “Al, what are Americans like?” To which I choked a little on my water and replied, “What are Americans like or what does the rest of the world think Americans are like?” Basically, we were learning adjectives, so each person had to come up with a bunch of adjectives to describe people from their own country. Of course, as we got into the exercise, the other girls became more willing to give their own adjectives for what Americans are like. Among them were fat, loud, tall, patriotic, friendly, open, religious and proud. As we went on for each country we discovered a lot of really interesting things. My impression had always been that most Europeans are pretty patriotic, but at least in Spain and Portugal, that’s not completely true. The other thing that I’ve discovered is that WWII is still at the forefront of a lot of Europeans’ minds. I’m in class with girls that are in their early, early twenties who bring up WWII all the time when talking about relations between European countries. Once WWII was brought up during this discussion, the Russian girl said to me that she thought Americans were very proud because we had defeated fascism. (To which my first thought was, “actually most people seem to be more upset about the whole not defeating communism thing than helping defeat some fascism in Europe,” but decided to keep that to myself). I said that it’s very different in the US because we didn’t suffer like Europe did in WWII, so to us it seems like a long time ago. I think the men and women of that generation were proud to serve their country and proud of helping Europe, but we’ve had so many wars since then that the threat of fascism seems like something from another world and a completely different time period. (Okay, so I wasn’t so eloquent – I had to speak completely in Spanish!) I then went on to say that the current mood for a lot of Americans is actually shame because we’re embarrassed about the situation in Iraq and our imbecilic president and we feel like the rest of the world hates us. The response to this was overwhelmingly positive – according to all of my classmates and teacher there is too much history to just think of the current president and the mess we’re in. They know that a lot of Americans disagree with the war and when they think of America, they think of the people they’ve met from the US who have all basically been friendly, open, tall, and patriotic.

So in summary:

1) I don’t look American.

2) America seems like a big, extreme country to the rest of the world.

3) The rest of the world doesn’t hate us! Yay! (Edited 28.04.08 – Okay, I may have spoken a little soon on this way. The rest of the world doesn’t hate us, per se, but we do have a bad reputation. poop.)


9 Comments leave one →
  1. Countess of Cava permalink
    25 April 2008 3:56 pm


    What a great blog. I know this is a subject about which we have often spoken. Your comments to us and to your class are very insightful. You don’t “look” American because of all your traveling, my dear. You are so continental!

    Aren’t these kinds of experiences just the best?

  2. Adrienne permalink
    28 April 2008 10:22 am

    Al, how do the Russian girls feel about Putin? And how does the Georgian feel about the Russian girls? I think it’s so interesting that Americans on an individual level aren’t held responsible or blamed for their government’s actions; I’m wondering whether your Georgian classmate has any feelings towards the Russians with regard to Putin’s threats to their sovereignty and role in preventing their NATO membership.

    Do you think the Russian girl’s fascination with WWII and the defeat of fascism has any connection to the harsh authoritarianism that has taken hold in her country?

  3. Peter permalink
    28 April 2008 2:27 pm

    Stereotyping people by country is as effective as stereotyping by race. In other words, it isn’t. If someone is of the opinion that all Americans are fat, obnoxious clowns, then that’s an opinion you can discount. Can you make some jokes about it? Absolutely. But to generalize is dangerous, and so are the people that do it.

    What am I going to be mistaken for in Europe? I’m tall, well-fed (fat is such a judgemental term) with relatively good teeth. I predict I’m going to be assumed to be Alison’s husband at least 3-to-1 over MC.

    Alison just threw up in her mouth a little. Okay, a lot.

  4. conison permalink
    28 April 2008 2:50 pm

    Ad – I haven’t asked the Russian girl about Putin. We don’t get too into politics normally, but I can ask her. Although the Russian accent is a little difficult to understand in Spanish, I’ll let you know what I find out. And the kid from Georgia is 14, so I doubt he has any thoughts about Russia and Georgia’s sovereignty – he is a soccer, excuse me, football player that, if I understand correctly, one of the teams in Madrid (I believe, Atletico) has moved here to develop him or something? I don’t know, do they normally do that? (Spirit of 73, you wanna weigh in on that?) So his only thoughts, at least as far as I can tell from classroom discussion, are about soccer and girls.
    I had another discussion on Friday with some other students and a different teacher, and they questioned how Bush could have possibly won the election twice. As the Spaniards said, they at least were smart enough not to reelect Aznar. I tried to explain as best as I could, but it’s a little difficult when it’s somewhat of a mystery to me, too.
    And I have been wondering what the Russian girl thinks in general about America and how anti-communism we are and the relationship between Bush and Putin among other things.
    Okay, you need to get your arse over here so we can talk about this instead of blogging about it!

  5. conison permalink
    28 April 2008 2:55 pm

    Peter, unfortunately you’re probably right. Everyone will think we’re a dutch couple on vacation. And you’re also right – I did just throw up in my mouth a lot.

    In all seriousness, I can’t wait to see what kind of a picture we all make. We might be the largest (as in tallest and biggest) group of people ever to hit Madrid at one time.

  6. mme. hoolaha permalink
    29 April 2008 1:41 pm

    Cuptastic, this piece is at once refreshing and reflective! Your observations and writing style make for such an enjoyable read!

    Regarding your summary:
    Seems like it basically comes down to the point that people are people. Perhaps one of the adventures of life is meeting as many individuals as opportunity affords, discerning each one’s je ne sais quoi, taking with you the uniqueness they offer and weaving it into your personal tapestry of joi de vie.

    btw, the countess and i will be on the beach with cocktails for anyone who would like to join us and discuss this further.

  7. Countess of Cava permalink
    29 April 2008 7:19 pm

    Cocktails begin at the hour appointed by Mme. Hoolaha and myself…which means immediately upon arrival at the beach, no matter the hour! We shall procede with “wasting the whole damn day” with great conversation, intellectual insights, marvelous food and fabulous wine. Not a bad way to live, eh?

  8. Spirit of 73 permalink
    29 April 2008 10:43 pm

    Indeed young players are gobbled up and sent to soccer farms to be developed.

    As for WWII still being big in Europe, the Civil War is still big in the south, so no surprise there.

    The Germans I have met in Europe have all told me that Germany is the least patriotic country in the world.

  9. mme. hoolaha permalink
    30 April 2008 1:47 pm

    Bruce, perhaps WWDD (wasting the whole damn day) is a concept that you and dan might grow to enjoy!!! after all, look at the beautiful people you will hob nob with!!!

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